Avarice. It’s the New Black.

Monday this week was…harsh. Harsh in the way that returning to the weekly routine after any holiday break is harsh. Who likes rising before 6:00 a.m. after sleeping in past 8:00 for several days?

My day was punctuated by random colleagues bragging about the amazing deals that they obtained during Black Friday. For my readers outside of the U.S., Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving that marks the traditional beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Retailers and malls (that landmark bastion of brainless American franchised conformity) open as early as midnight to admit shoppers who have been waiting in line, some camped out for days, to fight and push and lose any semblance of humanity in order to get the best price on this season’s hottest toy for little Johnny and best new gadget for dad, as well as a little something for themselves.

Invariably someone is hurt in the name of getting the deal, and invariably, somewhere in the country, an arrest is made. This year was no exception.

Then, they all return to work on Monday morning (unless they’ve been arrested) to brag about their spoils as though returning from a battlefield in which they have been victorious. Then, they get to go shopping again because it’s Cyber Monday, and that, at least, removes the threats and all-around lack of civility that occurred over the previous weekend.

I’ve ranted about this before, but, unpacking it, I think that there’s a theology to this. Recently, I saw a blogger refer to this holiday season as “Consumermas.” I couldn’t have summed it up more succinctly myself. The theology at work is that we’ve simply removed the original theological premise celebrated at Christmas and replaced it with what is worshipped by a consumer society: material possessions. Taylor discusses this as a hyper-individualized, crowd-sourced religion. The consumer is empowered by the ability to purchase things, to research and choose what best suits him or her. I think the natural theological premise (read: fallacy) that follows this is that material possessions are thus viewed to have a salvific effect.

Essentially, he who dies with the most toys wins.

So, the very thing that is worshipped, by definition, leaves a void, because it is constantly evolving, constantly shifting, never stable, always out of date and insufficient in months or weeks or days. Or hours. Consumermas is an excuse to throw up bright lights and indulge the greedy “I want…” voice in all of us, an apparently perfectly good reason to spiral ourselves further into debt in the name of propelling our economy forward and beating the winter blues.

Black Friday is adequately named, because I think the core motivation behind it is a very dark one. No matter how much we convince ourselves that our search for deals and bargains is for the good of the economy, or for the sake of giving good gifts, or just because you deserve something nice (and perhaps you do), it seems to always become a good enough reason to push and shove and threaten and treat others poorly.

It’s as if material possessions and economic stability were more important than the basic dignity of the human being next to you. Of course, let’s be honest: that isn’t a new trend.

When holiday wishes are passed around in December, they typically range from Christmas to Hannukah to Advent to winter solstice to the generic “Happy Holidays.” I propose that Consumermas be added to this list, because it’s just honest. Let the wish be according to what is being prioritized or worshipped.

And next year on Black Friday, I’ll be doing the same thing I did this year. Sleeping in.

Photo Attribution: I See Modern Britain 


Monday night brought excitement as I received news about the new (and much anticipated) software update for Barnes & Noble’s NOOK, my e-reader of choice. Coming at the end of an otherwise complicated and hectic beginning of my week, this was a bright spot in my day.

Although, truth be told, I’ve been having some problems in the ebook world lately.

I say that not as a writer, but as a reader. I can’t wait to self-publish my manuscript in ebook format (assuming said manuscript ever reaches completion…and, believe me, that’s a long way in the future yet), and I’m heavily attracted to the advantages that ebooks offer. I enjoy being able to download a book instantly and begin reading it, and carrying all of my current books with me. What I’ve found myself missing over the last few months, however, is seeing the cover art of the book in my hands. I didn’t think that this would be a big deal, but it sort of is. I’ve found myself missing the act of shelving the book when I’m finished reading it. What’s odd is that I didn’t anticipate missing any of these things at all.

As ebook selection isn’t nearly what it should be as of yet, I’m currently existing in both worlds, finding only about 40-50% of the books I want to read available as ebooks from any seller. So, I’ve had a chance to remember what I’ve been missing. This week, Karen ordered several books from Amazon. I’ve found myself looking forward to their arrival, to finding them at the door, to unboxing them. There’s something about the waiting that’s superior to instant gratification. There’s something about the anticipation.

I listened to a discussion recently about how the act of purchasing music has changed in the era of iTunes and digital downloads. I’ve mentioned here before that I made the transition from CD’s to iPod very easily. I haven’t missed purchasing physical CD’s. I don’t miss holding the album art, because it appears beautifully on my iPod’s screen. I love having my entire music collection with me everywhere. Music holds just as dear a place in my life as books do, but I don’t miss holding CD’s at all. So why do I miss holding books? After all, I’m still reading the book. I listen to audiobooks without missing the physical book itself. What’s different here?

The discussion I listened to this week hinted at a cheapening of the music buying process…a lack of discussion with people who are as passionate about it as you are. The panelist discussed the loss of connection with other music lovers that occurred when we had to drive to an indie record store to purchase music. Now, when we click and download, there’s consumerism without connection. The panelist likened it to pornography.

What’s interesting to me is that this parallels some recent thoughts I’ve had about another long-time love: comic books. Digital comics are just beginning to come into their own on tablet devices. They look gorgeous on my iPad. Yet, almost 100% of the titles I collect are unavailable in that format. So, two or three times a month, I stop by my local comic book shop. During my last visit, I became involved in a conversation with the guy behind the counter about some mutual favorite titles, and he recommended the new Black Widow to me. I didn’t even know they had re-vamped the Black Widow! He gained a sale, and I gained a new title to collect. That’s the sort of interaction…the recommendation of friends…that connect us with new music and new books that are the most important. No algorithm generating a “you may also like” selection after your purchase on a website can duplicate that.

Perhaps this is yet another case of technology being permitted to rise above the status of the tool it is meant to be, beginning to manipulate us into serving it instead of it serving us. Perhaps this is one step further toward what science fiction authors have warned us about for some time.

And, if so, how ironic that I read so much science fiction in electronic format?

Eventually, I’ll reconcile this dilemma that I can’t explain, and decide one way or another how I want to read. I’ll either cultivate a sense of waiting, or succumb to more instant gratification. Or, perhaps I’ll recognize that there’s one area of my life in which I struggle to release “the way things used to be,” after all. Until then, I’ll keep dividing my reading time between my NOOK and physical books.

Honestly, though, I wonder how long that will last.

Photo Attribution: bfhoyt 


I like Emily Deschanel. She’s a gifted actor. Even though Bones just isn’t as good a series as it once was, I admire Ms. Deschanel’s talent. I also admire her sister, Zooey Deschanel. Granted, she sounds a little flighty in some interviews, but have you watched her facial expressions when she performs? Her performance was part of what saved The Happening from a lousy script.

I like both of these actors for another reason, as well, though. Because I respect them. The reason I respect them is because they haven’t taken their clothes off or otherwise posed in needlessly provocative photoshoots. Good for them.

I’m not placing them on some sort of pedestal…that’s not my intention. And they’re certainly not alone. Although, they are a member of a minority in not doing so. I’m not certain which of the actors (of both sexes) who refuse to objectify themselves in this way are doing so out of respect for themselves, out of moral stances, out of faith, or may intend to and just haven’t gotten around to it yet. But I admire those who haven’t, nonetheless.

Celebrity is an interesting phenomenon in our culture. Barry Taylor discusses it in Entertainment Theology, stating essentially that culture is something produced, and that the producers make celebrities, the whole thing functioning in a religious sense. With pop culture, celebrities are simultaneously one of us and one of the pantheon of “saints” in the theology of pop culture, and we take possession of them in that way. The audience takes possession of what has been produced, essentially, and determines its value and meaning.

Go ahead, try to wrap your brain around that one and get back to me. The implications are huge.

I think that this leads to us objectifying celebrities. We think we have the right to see a celebrity however we want. We decide if their crises are worth laughing at or ridiculing in order to make us feel better. We’re Romans tossing people to lions for sport, and somehow thinking we have that right because of this twisted celebrity culture we’ve created.

I wonder if the natural result of this isn’t celebrities thinking of themselves as our property. Thus, the only way to maintain celebrity status today (or to regain it when one “isn’t cool” any more), is to pose for a photoshoot that is racy, or (let’s call it what it is) completely pornographic.

Now, pause for a moment, before I really arouse your ire (I may by the end of the post, but not for this, please). I’m not calling all art involving nudity pornographic or objectifying. It is necessary for the story or presentation of theme at times, in many artistic mediums. When done, it can be done either tastefully, or gratuitously…just  like violence in storytelling and visual art. Every time a photographer captures their model in various states of undress, the result is not always objectifying.

It’s just a great deal of the time. Now…let the ire arise.

And, it happens across the board. Recently, an Internet celebrity I follow posed for a men’s magazine. I rolled my eyes. A few years ago, I discovered that a  favorite musician that I had loved since childhood posed nude for playboy. My heart broke. I lost respect for them both. But I also feel really sorry for them both, because one day, they may wake up and wish they hadn’t. And there’s no taking that back.

I admire artists who are focused on their art, placing their effort into their craft, into the stories they are telling and the beauty they are portraying. I respect artists that are not caught up in the celebrity culture and thus don’t feel the need to expose themselves in order to hold popularity. I don’t have the right to see any celebrity I want nude. I don’t own them. I only get to participate (as the audience) in their art…and that is enough.

I heard a co-worker say (about something unrelated) a few weeks ago that, if he can’t be part of the solution, he certainly doesn’t want to be part of the problem. I think we can do both. Visiting the website makes us part of the problem, even if we’re avoiding the “red light” district of the Internet and only browsing paparazzi shots and fan pages. Changing our perspective, and eschewing the multitude of media that capitalizes and commodifies celebrity worship moves toward being part of the solution. Because, let’s be honest: a lot of you are news junkies like myself, but do we really care who’s married to who and who cheated and who got drunk last weekend? I really don’t need to be a drama voyeur…I have enough of my own.

Incidentally, I’m not making this about erotica and the porn industry. That’s a completely separate…and equally abhorrent…problem.

Let’s leave the drama behind, shall we? And let’s respect everyone as we do. Regardless of your faith, there’s something to the Golden Rule. I hope for a culture in which more artists care about their craft and not their celebrity status. To all of them, let me say, I don’t own you, and neither do any of the rest of us.

Please don’t act as though we do.

Photo Attribution: david_shankbone 

I’d Love to Be Silent, But…

I set my status update a few minutes ago to say that I was clueless as to what to post about tonight. My friend recommended the “art of silence.”  I’ll avoid that one, because I think it’s way too heavy a statement for my current faculties.

I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. And, while all of it is exciting, it’s also a bit wearing. If you’ve read my musings here over the last year or so, you’re not surprised when I say that I need a career change. I’ve made my living in the social sciences, specifically in health care, for about ten years now. On my worst day, I no longer believe in my discipline. On my best days, I feel like I’m beating my head into a wall that isn’t moving. This is a field I stumbled into quite by accident, and its time in my life is drawing to a conclusion, for a number of reasons (namely, due to recent health care legislation, I basically am not marketable should I ever leave my current position).

Fortunately, I’ve been wanting to return to academia since I finished grad school. The problem is that I’ve simply got too many interests for my own good, and narrowing them down to even the two or three that could be incorporated into a good multi-disciplinary program has been excruciating at times. The positive outcome of the three years that have passed since I finished grad school has been that I’ve finally found everything cohesively tied into one research topic.

I think.

But, there’s the issue of making a living while returning to school…which is problematic considering I can’t pursue the type of study I want to here, which means leaving my current position…refer to paragraph one. So, making a career change that would allow me to return to something creative on a full time basis (instead of dabbling and freelancing as I do now) seems a logical choice. In fact, sometimes, it seems to be the more interesting choice.

At the crux of the problem is the old adage, “Those who can do, those who can’t teach.” I don’t believe that to be true, but I think it says something, in any case, and what it says is at the core of my dilemma. Do I want to study writing, or spend my energy writing? Do I want to study theatre, or work in theatre? Do I want to study, or do? Studying I’m confident in, doing sometimes brings up a host of insecurities. Ideally, I want to do, and have the doing make way for studying. Then I become concerned that that’s too much.

And, did I mention that I’m married, so its not just me that I’m trying to factor into this decision?

All that, not to whine, but because I have all of this spinning through my head and not a clue what else to write tonight. So, here I am.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Spit and Sputter

The New York Times ran this op-ed piece last week, and it caught my eye, because I think that the study it discusses is indicative of something far deeper than just a deficit in Western education. I think it points to an issue with U.S. culture at large.

America has always been far too violent a culture for my taste. I personally think that the cowboy stereotype of the “Wild West” genre of movies is generally and accurately descriptive of our culture,  as we seem to prefer to solve our problems as gunslingers instead of having some form of reasoned conversation. To use the phrase the New York Times used, “civility” is something I find to be sorely lacking here.

Violence in U.S. culture is generally accepted as a way of life, if even in a bit of a duplicitous way. Gang violence in urban streets, for example, is condemned by the same people that support warfare as a primary option in foreign policy. After all, we’re a country founded in revolution, and combat has taken on a certain place of cultural honor as a result. That was the first splash in the pool, but the concentric circles that result from that splash are more concerning. Police officers in the U.S. often carry fully automatic rifles in their cruisers. This is compared to the fact that police officers in most cities in the U.K., for example, have no need to carry even a sidearm. That’s partly an issue of a right to bear arms, but more an issue of civility taken seriously as a cultural foundation. In the study referenced above, notice that many students in public schools answered that it was okay to hit someone. When succumbing to the initial impulse to do violence as a way to solve a disagreement, we refuse to rise above the knee-jerk reaction of our most base impulses. The resulting state of affairs is not limited to the realm of physical violence, either.

The reason is because this mindset justifies a refusal to listen to others’ views. This, I think, is the launching point for the troubling phenomenon of fundamentalism, both in religious and political spheres…a “my way or the highway” attitude that results in such a forcibly dogmatic argument for one’s beliefs that there is no recognition of the others’ right to believe otherwise, or, worse, a refusal to accept that person or group as even legitimate in their existence because their viewpoint parts company with yours.

I’m not attempting to make a political statement in this post. I’m not asserting that one culture is superior to another culture. I just want to say that there’s a lack of civility and willingness to discuss options and ideas that is taking a frightening hold in American culture, and the result is a violence done to ideas and to civilization, as well as a violence done to everyone’s personal safety.

I heard a statement from a professor at the beginning of my undergraduate studies that has stayed in my memory. She said (and she may have been quoting someone else, so feel free to correct me here) that, “A civilization advances or declines based upon its ability to talk about its problems.” If that statement is taken to be true, then my culture…that is, American culture…is declining at a rate so rapid that I’m left with serious concern for the next decade. Screaming so loudly that the no one can hear the other’s perspective is not a valid method of debate. In fact, it isn’t a debate, at all.

Photo Attribution: tiseb